The Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc across the globe over the last fourteen months. One of the major effects it has had is on the local economy and the ability of individuals to support themselves and families in the face of limited movement and income. While large corporations have deep safety nets to fall back on in the face of economic crisis, many small businesses rely on relative stability and government support in severe cases. So, in the midst of a pandemic, how are local businesses fairing as they try to keep themselves and their community safe while still earning sufficient income? I argue that a local business’ ability to survive this crisis is dependent on their ability to adhere to safety precautions, ingenuity, and the support of the surrounding community.
The historic Irvington neighborhood, just fifteen minutes east of Downtown Indianapolis, is home to many local businesses. These include a range of businesses from merchandise stores like gift shops like The Magic Candle, Bonna Shops, and Irvington Vinyl and Books, to cafes like Landlocked and Wyliepalooza, to nightlife spaces like Black Acre Brewing tap room and beer garden and Strange Bird, and to restaurants like Heartbreaker, Jockamo’s, and the Lincoln Square Pancake House. These businesses can be found along a mile long square in the center of the Irvington neighborhood. The only larger chain business to be found in Irvington is a Starbucks café.
These businesses all have had to adhere to the governmental regulations, informed by the CDC, to help spread the slow of Covid-19. The first measure to go into place would be the shut-down during which only essential businesses could remain open from the end of March through April. For many of these businesses, which served food, they were considered essential and allowed to remain open in reduced capacities such as drive-thru or pick-up only. Only merchandise only stores were forced to close during this time; however, they did have access to emergency stimulus packages meant to sustain small businesses. Following this measure, reduced capacities and mask mandates were implemented. Since mask mandates allowed for exceptions when one is eating and drinking, this allowed restaurants and other feed service businesses to re-open to some capacity. The last major safety regulation implemented was a curfew which had little effect on Irvington businesses which had already closed before midnight.
The ability to adapt and adhere to these regulations is one of the major keys to these businesses being able to survive (Cheshmehzangi 2020). Several food serving businesses were able to provide take-out, patio seating, and spaced-out seating inside the restaurant. With the ability to perform the first two methods of service these places could maintain acceptable income streams; especially as customers chose to use safer options while still eating out rather than choosing to avoid restaurants all together (Cheshmehzangi 2020). The merchandise-based businesses were able to fully accommodate these regulations since there was no reason customers would need to remove a mask while indoors and that these businesses were rarely packed to maximum capacity before Covid-19 anyway. For example, Irvington Vinyl and Books have been vocal about requiring masks and following all safety precautions which has encouraged the perception that the store is safe to visit.
Along with the ability to adapt is the level of ingenuity a business may reach while trying to meet these safety precautions. The best example of this is Strange Bird, a tiki bar and restaurant located on Audubon Rd. During the warmer months Strange Bird was able to offer more outdoor seating options with picnic tables. As the weather grew colder, customers were less likely to want to sit outside in the elements. Strange Bird then rented storage containers to create one table sized, mostly enclosed seating arrangements complete with space heaters in the parking lot to provide customers warm dining conditions that were separate from other customers and staff (Strange Bird 2021). The pods were well decorated to recreate the atmosphere one would normally find within the restaurant. They were also able to take advantage of nearby, free parking that allowed them to use their parking lot space to construct these pods. This clever idea allowed Strange Bird to offer outdoor dining and increase their income during cold months like February while other restaurants could not do the same.
Other local businesses took advantage of the long-term reduced business and profits to carve out time for renovations like Coal Yard Coffee and Wyliepalooza (Coal Yard Coffee 2021; Wyliepalooza 2021). If the renovations were already being planned, it is a perfect opportunity for both safety and profit margins to conduct the renovations while the pandemic has restricted their function. Other businesses, such as Heartbreaker, used the time to open their restaurant when they would not be missing out on much business already. The reduced potentiality for profit making makes it easier to decide to make decisions that would cause a loss of profit.
While businesses may find clever ways to adapt to covid-19 regulations, they still rely on customers choosing to patronize their business over others. The myriad of local businesses in Irvington inspire customer loyalty through developing social connections and a sense of community with neighborhood members. There is a Facebook page for Irvington members consisting of nearly 700 members where businesses can share information and updates about their business. This allows the owners to advertise to potential customers as well as develop the sense of community belonging that the business occupies. It can make the relationship between business and customer feel more intimate, like friends which inspires customers to choose that business over other options like large chain corporations.
The physical landscape also plays a role in contributing to the sense of familiarity and community with these local businesses. Although Washington St. is a more major road, all these businesses are located in what feels like a walkable area. They are also located on an approximately mile long route and easy walking or biking distance from the edges of the neighborhood boundaries. This landscape somewhat achieves the goal of the 15-minute city by providing a significant number of resources within walking distance (O’Sullivan & Bliss 2020). Since these businesses are embedded within the neighborhood it often feels more familiar that driving out to stores further away from the community’s homes. This would be indicative of the “third-place” public space that many people incorporate in their daily routines and have kept to preserve a sense of comfort and normalcy during the pandemic (Low & Smart 2020). It also makes these options more accessible and convenient than other businesses which require longer travel times or expensive delivery fees which are significant factors as revealed in a recent study by Zypmedia (Zypmedia 2020).
In addition to these factors, community support can come from attitudes within the community which prioritize supporting local, small businesses over larger chains (Zypmedia 2020). These attitudes also require people to have the capacity to afford to support small businesses over larger chains which tend to be more affordable (Izurieta 2021). During the Covid-19 pandemic where there has been significant economic consequences, the desire and ability to support local businesses over other options indicates relative financial status and stability (Hardy 2020; Izurieta 2021). When looking at how local businesses are surviving the Covid-19 pandemic it is important to note the socio-economic status of their customer base; there are likely many cases where otherwise loyal customers are unable to financially support the local businesses and relying on this phenomenon is an impractical model for all such businesses (Izurieta 2021).
It is extremely fortunate for the local businesses in the Irvington neighborhood to have had the ability to adapt to the Covid-19 pandemic, to have gained and maintained the support of the surrounding community, and that the community remained able to support these businesses. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected every person and every area in different ways and the Irvington neighborhood highlights how privilege, community ties and relationships, and the physical landscape can help guard against some of the more severe effects that Covid-19 has had on others. This example can demonstrate to other entrepreneurs and city planners the usefulness of having access to local businesses within the residential sphere and their ability to persevere in times of hardship. Maybe it can inspire further developments within the empty commercial spaces to make more resources, such as groceries and pharmacies, available as well. It can also be a reminder of the neighborhood’s good fortune and privilege which can hopefully inspire neighborhood residents to do what they can to share that privilege.
Cheshmehzangi, A. (2020). “10 Adaptive Measures for Public Places to facethe COVID 19 Pandemic Outbreak.” City & Society. DOI:10.1111/ciso.12335
Coal Yard Coffee. (2021, March 27). “We’re open!! Please stop by this weekend and enjoy a scoop of ice cream on us while you wait for our baristas to perfect your favorite beverage. (Yup! We have ice cream!) Thanks for all of the support and patience! Can’t wait to see you!” Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/cyc5547project/photos/pcb.3753530744696865/3753526634 97276/
Hardy, L. (2020). “Negotiating Inequality: Disruption and COVID-19 in the United States.” City & Society. DOI:10.1111/ciso.12312
Izurieta, J. (2021, January 12). “The Privilege of Shopping Local”. Proud Places. https://proudplaces.com/the-privilege-of-shopping-local
Low, S, Alan Smart. (2020). “Thoughts about Public Space During Covid-19 Pandemic.” City & Society. DOI: 10.1111/ciso.12260.
O’Sullivan, F., Laura Bliss. (2020, November 12). “The 15-Minute City—No Cars Required—Is Urban Planning’s New Utopia.” Bloomberg Businessweek.
Strange Bird. (2021, February 24). “The snow has melted (mostly)! We’re opening the pods back up tonight, as well as offering some socially-distanced indoor seating. See you at 5! @jeskeepswimming.” [Facebook update]. Retrieved from: https://www.facebook.com/strangebirdindy/photos/a.121560395964584/442796473840 73/
Wyliepalooza. (2021, January 5). “Irvington will reopen next month ? #wyliepalooza” Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/Wyliepaloozas
Zypmedia. (2020, May 28). “Consumers Want to Support Their Local Economy by Supporting Local Businesses, According to a Survey by ZypMedia.” PR Newswire. https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/consumers-want-to-support-their-local economy-by-supporting-local-businesses-according-to-a-survey-by-zypmedia 301066610.html